Microaggression Study Shows Why You Can't Call Minorities "Hypersensitive"

"Everyone finds that annoying, whether you're white or not."

Unsplash / Omar Lopez

Microaggressions are slights against minorities that make them feel ostracized and put-down, but the validity of microaggressions has new scientific proof to back up the damage felt by those on the receiving end.

In the New York Times, the novelist R.O. Kwon recently condemned people who routinely call Asian women “adorable”; Solange Knowles wrote an entire song about why you should not just reach out and touch a black person’s hair.

Some people dismiss reactions to microagressions as the whining of hypersensitive minorities, but the new work of Goldsmiths, University of London researcher Keon West, Ph.D., shows why that thinking is flawed and harmful.

West’s study, published Sunday in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, casts a critical eye on the hypersensitivity hypothesis, which asserts that ethnic minorities respond with “disproportionate negativity, or ‘hypersensitivity,’ to mundane or innocuous events.” A person who believed this would say that Kwon and Knowles are overreacting because they are minority individuals and that calling someone “cute” or touching someone’s hair is not actually offensive.

West saw a smart way to test this hypothesis: Investigate how people in the ethnic majority — that’s white people — respond to the same kind of slights. As he shows in his paper, ethnicity has nothing to do with how people react to those provocations.

"Everyone finds that annoying, whether you’re white or not."

“The point is that being frequently assumed to be not what you are — to be someone who you’re not, to be someone who serves others, to be spoken to as if you’re less intelligent — no one likes that,” West, an associate professor in social psychology, tells Inverse. “Everyone finds that annoying, whether you’re white or not.”

Everyone Responds to Slights in the Same Way

West’s study, which involved over 500 participants, was divided into three parts. In the first two, he asked both white and minority people in the UK to recall whether and how often they’d experienced certain microaggressions, established by previous researchers. He also asked them about their negative and positive feelings, as well as their global life satisfaction, in relation to those microaggressions. Here are some that he included:

  • Others expecting your work to be inferior
  • Your ideas or opinions being minimized, ignored, or devalued
  • Being treated as if you were stupid, being talked down to
  • Being avoided, others moving away from you physically
  • Others reacting to you as if they were afraid or intimidated
  • Being observed or followed while in public places
  • Being mistaken for someone else of the same race
  • Being stared at by strangers
  • Being mistaken for someone who serves others (i.e. janitor, maid)

In the third part of the study, West asked his participants to recall a real-life instance of a microaggression that happened to them at a restaurant and to report their positive and negative emotions related to it.

Taken together, the results showed that all people, whether white or of an ethnic minority, respond negatively to microaggressions. The only finding that differed between the ethnic minority and majority participants is that minorities experienced microaggressions more frequently.

This data refutes the hypersensitivity hypothesis, which holds that people of a ethnic minorities are more sensitive to these slights than others.

“Essentially, everyone reacts to these things the same way,” says West. “And then the question is, who experiences more of them? Which is clearly the ethnic minorities.”

R.O. Kwon spoke out in the New York Times about people who call Asian women "adorable."

Unsplash / hao ji

Controversy in Microaggresion Research

West says his work isn’t about encouraging people to be overly politically correct. For what it’s worth, he thinks political correctness as a term is “very useful” and that we shouldn’t use it to “stifle debate.”

His research is in part aimed at critics of microaggression research in academia, who brush it off as what he calls “hypersensitive nonsense.” The contentious anti-PC Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, for one, has vehemently characterized political correctness as a manifestation of “offense sensitivity.” As a result of these ideas, important research on microaggression — and how to mitigate it — tends to get stifled.

“People who ascribe to that view don’t take microaggressions seriously and are less inclined to stop microaggresions from happening,” says West.

The results of his work simply suggest that microaggressions affect everyone, not just people criticized as being overly politically correct. “I do think that this takes the focus somewhat off the idea that, ‘Oh, we’re just walking on eggshells, or we’re creating a victim mentality,’” says West. “That evidently doesn’t seem to be the case.”

He points out one caveat, which is that it’s “philosophically impossible” to prove a negative — that ethnic minorities are not more sensitive to microaggressions. What he can show, and what he did in this study, is that one can look for evidence that they are not sensitive and fail to find it. “All you can do is look for evidence and fail to find it over and over again,” he says.

At the heart of the study are the people, white and non-white, who suffer these provocations and would benefit from a way to deal with them. Kwon, in her piece for the New York Times, summed up how the negative effect of microaggressions are not restricted to minorities; they are just more often directed at them:

Then try to imagine an audience member at a literary festival eagerly addressing this author as Chris — when he is in fact Mark, and a full eight inches taller, with a different hairstyle and wearing glasses different from Chris’s. But white men don’t generally get elided like this. Asian people do.

Once we get past the idea that ethnic minorities are being hypersensitive, perhaps we can focus on finding ways to help people affected by microaggressions to figure out how to deal with them and, perhaps more importantly, find ways to communicate to the greater population that these behaviors are offensive to everyone.

“Nobody likes being followed around a store or being treated rudely in a restaurant or being assumed to be a maid,” says West. “I suppose a maid wouldn’t mind, but the point is that there’s nothing wrong with being a maid.”

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